Reasibility and Effect of Grass-Based Dairying on the Family Farm

Final Report for FNC02-389

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2002: $5,970.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Our family farm consists of 139 acres of mostly moderate to very steep pasture group located in the hills of Switzerland County, IN. we operate a grass based dairy of 44 registered Jersey cows and are raising our replacement heifers. We have six children, ages 18 to 2, and out two oldest girls help raise the baby calves and heifers. My wife helps with the milking and diary chores. With the help of the SARE grant, we utilized the management intensive grazing system we installed this year. We also feed purchased grain in the parlor and some home grown hay.

This year we raised 40 acres of our own and share crop tobacco using no-till practices. We do not employ any full time help but do employ seasonal workers to help harvest and strip the tobacco.

Our family annually hosts Ag Day for the 4th graders of our county with the cooperation of our local Farm Bureau, Switzerland County Homemakers, SWCD, FSA, and Purdue Cooperative Extension Service. We believe it is important to share our farming heritage and help educate the youth of our county. Our family was recently awarded the Switzerland County Distinguished Service award for this service.

This year we were awarded the Switzerland County Conservation Farmer Award. Sustainable practices we have utilized in the past include seeding potentially erodible land into hay land and pasture, seeding tobacco patches with a fall cover crop after harvest, and rotating patches on a regular basis. Drainage ways in crop fields are put into grassed waterways and not farmed. We have carried out these practices for 20 years. No till practices were implemented were erosion was possible for the last 10 years. Since moving here in 2001 we have fenced the streams and ponds to keep cattle out and are working to increase soil organic matter, fertility, and biological activity.

The objective of this project is to demonstrate the feasibility and effect that a sustainable grass based dairy can have on a family farm by enhancing quality of life, increasing net profits, protecting the environment, and addressing social concerns.

The first step we took was to visit Dave Forgey of Logansport, IN who is a pioneer in grass based dairying. Dave suggested we rethink our idea of several exists off the milking lot and consider one primary lane with entrances to the paddocks off the lane. He believes this would better utilize the pasture and make smaller paddock size more achievable. Taking Dave’s advice, we were able to increase the number of paddocks of our original plan from 7 to 11 with each lot averaging 3 to 4 acres.

In our original plan, we were going to lay mesh netting down covered by crushed rock to make our lane. However, our SWCD officer advised against this in our area due to worries that the edges would eventually become exposed with traffic and water would begin to flow under the netting. Dave Forgey also thought it would be an unnecessary expense. Based on this advice we constructed the lane with #73s, a mixture of #7 gravel and lime screenings, 2 inches deep and 8 feet wide. The land has held up very well to the traffic of 44 Jersey cows on one of the wettest years we’ve had. We were very pleased with the performance and design of using 1 lane. We had no problems with lameness, erosion, or mud. Following more of Dave’s advice, the only equipment allowed on the lane has been the 4 wheeler.

Once our lane was completed we ran the water line besides it. It is ¾ inch black plastic pipe. We used quick coupler attachments for our water hydrants in a dry well covered with a 4 inch PVC cap. 1 tank serves 2 lots when possible. Dave also introduced us to the idea of using a long hose and a portable tub so it can be moved from place to place. This not only cost less than permanent fountains, but lessens compaction at watering sites because of mobility. There has not been any erosion because the tank is never in the same spot in the field for the nest rotation.

We installed the water line 18 inches deep using a single sub soiler shank. We ran the shank first without the pipe where we wanted the line to go and then laid the pipe on top of the ground. We then went back and fed the pipe over the tractor and through the show welded on the back of the shank. This procedure worked very well.

With the lane and water line installed, fencing was our next step. The interior paddocks were fenced using high tensile wire. We placed the gaps for entrance onto the lane at the corners nearest the barn to help with cow flow. We also installed gaps from one paddock to the next so the tractor and mower could change lots without getting on the lane. We used a break wire of electric rope on a reel and step in pigtail posts to further subdivide the paddocks. This temporary wire was moved when the cows were returned to the pasture after each milking. The time to take the cows to pasture and move the wire is about 10 minutes. During this year’s grazing season we had one incidence of deer damage where they hit the high tensile wire. It was stretched but not broken. The electric rope was never damaged. Permanent perimeter fence was built next. We chose 5 strand barbed wire fencing for the back of the farm with the steepest hillsides and woven wire with a strand of barbed wire on top completed the perimeter fence along the roadsides. Most posts were able to be pushed with the tractor bucket, we welded a bracket under the bucket to hold the posts, but some holes had to be dug due to the rocky nature of our soil.

The next step of our project was renovating our mostly tall fescue pastures. Frost seeding red, ladino, and white clover yielded excellent results in some paddocks, especially the white clover. Orchard grass did not yield noticeable results. The lots that were grazed down the closest and the cows left in to tread in the seed, changed from approximately 15% clover/85% tall fescue and other grasses to 60% clover/40% tall fescue and other grasses. Paddocks that still had a lot of growth only increased the amount of clover by about 10%. We did not have any cases of bloat in the high clover lots, but the cows were receiving access to a big round bale of hay and 12 lbs of grain at milking.

Two sections of pasture were reseeded with the purpose of taking the first cutting as hay and then grazing them the rest of the year. One was killed down and no tilled back with Brome grass, Timothy, Alfalfa and White Clover. The other field grew no till tobacco last year. We had sowed a fall cover crop of wheat. We grazed the wheat in early spring and part of the summer, and then disked to maintain weed control. It was sowed back to Orchard grass, Brome grass, Alfalfa, White Clover, and Chicory. These stands are looking very promising.

During the grazing season we monitored our pastures. Our daughter Diana assisted in monitoring plant diversity and the prevalence of weeds as the grazing season progressed. This information helped determine seeding recommendations and identify potential weed pressures.

Soil samples that where taken this fall showed low organic matter and low pH in several paddocks. However, in most paddocks pH had improved slightly from lime we had applied.

We decided not to send off fescue samples to check for endophyte presence after we were assured by Ed Heckman, Keith Johnson, and our extension agent that KY31 Tall Fescue, which was established on the farm many years ago, is definitely endophyte infested.

We purchased a 15’ pasture mower and mowed the pastures 4 times during the grazing season. It was essential to keep the fescue short and vegetative to reduce the endophyte problem and increase palatability. Mowing also kept iron weed and Canadian thistles from going to seed, which will hopefully reduce the population of these weeds next year.

- Martin Miller –assisted in monitoring sugar and nitrate levels in pasture plants. Also assisted in measuring earthworm numbers and biological activity in the soil.
- Eric Cole – manager of Laughery Valley Ag Coop, assisted in soil sampling, seed variety selection, and fertilization recommendations
- Dave Forgey – assisted with advice on lane formation, watering systems, interior fencing, and paddock design.
- Casie Auxier, Switz. Co. SWCD – Maggie Hopping, Volunteer – Ray Hopping, IDNR –Mark Thomas, IDNR – Vickie Smith, Ripley Co. SWCD – assisted in promotion, preparation, and presentation of the field day.
- Ed Heckman, Keith Johnson, and Sussanah Hole – field day speakers

The results of this project were many. One result was that we were able to lower the percent protein in our feed in our feed from 16% to 10% and still maintain acceptable MUN numbers, indicating optimum nitrogen usage, due to increased grazing efficiency and improvement of pastures. This lowered our feed costs $40.00/ton.

There were no cases of mastitis after the cows freshened compared to 4-6 cases annually before. We believe this improved because the cows were only on the lot for milking. Also, the pastures were rotated before nay muddy spots developed so they were only laying in clean grassy areas. We believe this saved about $10.00/treated cow in medicine and 160lbs of milk/treated cow that would have been lost. 1.6 cwt x $14.00/cwt = $22.40 savings/treated cow.

We had no displaced abomasums (DA’s) where in the past we would generally have 2/year. We think this may be due to a higher forage/concentrate level.

There was no need to trim hooves. When milking confinement and using a dry lot hooves needed trimmed about once a year. We believe the cattle keep their hooves wore down better walking to and from pasture. We have also bred for several years for improved feet and legs and steep foot angle.

We had one heifer we had to assist with calving due to a dry birth. This was about the same as in the past. Jerseys generally have no trouble calving.

The milking lot only needed scraped about 1 out of 10 days where before it needed scraped daily. This significantly lowered stored manure and odors from spread manure.

Time driving from machinery on our roads was greatly reduced since we did not have to grow silage on the river ground and bring it to the silo. Forage harvesting and additional manure removal equipment did not have to be purchased. We estimate that noise and exhaust from farm machinery was reduced by about 60%. We also saved on fuel, reduced wear and tear on equipment, improved safety on the county roads, and saved time and labor.

Our financial records show a 50% decrease in vet bills, 45% decrease in feed bills, and a 50% decrease in dairy supplies such as paper towels for cleaning udders and fly spray. Our milk production decreased 19%. Our gross income/cow decreased 17%. However, our net income/cow increased 5%. We are very pleased with these results.

Our quality of life has definitely improved. The stress level has lowered. The satisfaction, pleasure, and contentment of seeing and hearing cows on pasture are very rewarding. Dairying is fun again. We have had more time to do things with the children, such as fishing, and have been able to participate in more community and church activities.

There are three things we would do differently:
1) Increase our stocking rate. We averaged 40 cows on 50 acres of improved pasture. We believe we could have stocked 80.
2) Grazed all paddocks down closely and treaded in white clover after frost seeding in order to have had better clover establishment in all paddocks.
3) Ran water lines to paddocks on both sides of the lane by teeing off the main line so the hose doesn’t have to cross on top of the lane.

We learned from this grant that it is possible to be profitable and spend time with family. We learned that net income can increase along with quality of life while protecting and improving environmental quality. We learned that grass based dairying can be a feasible and effective alternative.

This has affected our farming operation in that we plan to continue grassed based dairying, also becoming seasonal this year. We are increasing the herd to 72 cows next spring and reducing the tobacco from 40 to 15 acres – just raising our and my father’s base and not leasing any pounds. We do not expect to have to hire any additional help. We were able to overcome the barrier of purchasing forage harvesting and manure removal equipment by utilizing management intensive grazing on improved pastures.

The advantages on implementing a grass based dairy are that large sums of capital to invest in equipment and buildings are not required. One man or family can manage more cows than in a confinement situation. Net income increases. Quality of life increases along with environmental quality. Stress levels decrease. This type of sustainable agriculture helps maintain positive interaction with our neighbors, community, and consumers of our products.

We found no disadvantages in implementing this project. If asked for recommendation, I would tell other producers to visit grass-based dairies before beginning their project. It always helps to see things in person and ask questions. This way you can learn from other farmer’s successes and failures and get new ideas and advice.

We told others about our project by hosting a field day at our farm Saturday June 21st, from 9:00 to 12:00 pm. Switzerland County SWCD helped sponsor the event. Post cards were sent to farmers in our county and neighboring counties. Flyers were developed and posted throughout the county and sent to neighboring SWCD offices. Susanna Hole sent out emails to the producers on her mailing list. We communicated our material by taking a pasture tour and explaining at different stops the various aspects of the project we were working on. Three speakers also presented information. Ed Heckman spoke on rotational grazing. Keith Johnson taught identification and characteristics of different pasture species. Susanna hole presented various watering and temporary fencing solutions. A meal was then served. Fact sheets we developed were handed out along with material from the speakers. Several door prizes were awarded. Everyone received a grazing ruler and instruction on how to use it. 13 people were in attendance. Unfortunately, weather had been unseasonably wet all spring and the day of our event was one of the few dry days farmers could work in our area.

Now that we have gathered enough information, we will also send an article to the magazine, the Indiana Prairie Farmer, and the weekly paper, Farm World, explaining our project and results.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.